Well-being at work: Worth a second glance

Well-being at work: Worth a second glance

Anthony Schulzetenberg

Joe Colihan


| ˈˌwel ˈˌbēiNG ˌāt ˌwərk  | An employee’s reported sense of burnout and emotional hardening as a result of their job. Well-Being at Work also includes the employee’s exposure to harassment (experienced and witnessed) and their feelings of safety at work.


What comes to mind when you hear the term “workplace wellness”?  Many would list workplace additions like fruit in the common areas, stand-ups desks, yoga classes during the workday, or even programs to help employees combat body weight or substance issues.  While these examples may aim to promote and improve wellness, they are only one piece of the workplace wellness pie.  Research on Millennial workers has shown that emotional, intellectual, and positive relationships between employers, managers, and coworkers are valued more than salaries or physical workspaces (Global Wellness Institute, 2018).  For this upcoming generation of employees, caring is at the core of workplace wellness.  The days of addressing employee wellness by providing walking desks or nutritional programs has passed; workplace wellness programs need to include intangible, interpersonal factors that have large effects on employee satisfaction, productivity, and health. 

This sea change has led many companies to shift their focus from employee wellness to employee well-being initiatives.  Addressing well-being provides a more comprehensive approach to employee health and productivity, including improving elements of emotional and mental health, interpersonal interactions (including harassment), and safety at work.   

It can be interesting to see how employee well-being relates to a popular topic among managers: employee engagement.  According to a recent, national, employee survey by SHRM (2017), employee engagement and job satisfaction levels have continued to remain high for the past three years.  This positive statistic contrasts the finding that less than half (42%) of employees report being “very satisfied” with feeling safe in their work environment, while even fewer (31%) are “very satisfied” with their company’s corporate culture.  This discrepancy indicates that engagement and satisfaction are not the sole factors that influence well-being at work.  Further supporting these findings, our Minnesota Workplace Wellness Assessment ℠ data from nearly 900 U.S. employees pinpointed engagement as one of seven predictors of Well-Being at Work; however, it was only the fifth strongest driver among them (behind—in order—fairness, access to resources, involvement in decision making, and teamwork).   Therefore, if employers want to improve their employees’ well-being at work, they must look beyond employee engagement.  This involves taking a comprehensive look at issues of work environment safety and company culture, that along with well-being, are components of workplace climate.  

Workplace climates in the U.S. have recently been under scrutiny—and for good reason.  In surveying over 3,000 employees, a joint study by the Rand Corporation, Harvard Medical School, and the University of California, Los Angeles found that employers are out of touch with their employees; employers’ and employees’ beliefs as to why employees are stressed do not align (Carver, Davenport, and Nyce, 2015).  The study found that one in five participants report working in a hostile or threatening work environment.  This figure is supported by our data that found almost one in four people have experienced harassment at work.  Perhaps a contributor to employee stress is poor workplace climate, which in turn can have adverse impacts on well-being.  The authors concluded that to implement effective engagement and well-being programs, employers must understand and address issues specific to their workplace.  This makes sense; if you want to treat an illness, understanding the symptoms and proper diagnosis are necessary steps.


number out of five that report hostility in their workplace.

There still exists the looming question of why employers should care about employee well-being.  Does employee well-being really matter to organizational success?  Countless studies have reported that effective health and well-being strategies improve worker productivity, increase turnover savings, improve benefit cost management, and result in ultimately superior financial performance (Carver, Davenport, and Nyce, 2015). 

Employee well-being, when paired with employee health, can help counter both absenteeism and presenteeism.  Additionally, in an increasingly interconnected world and economy, these benefits extend beyond the United States, making it of global importance.  In his national best-selling book The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni describes organizational health (a synonym for workplace climate) to have a multiplicative effect on knowledge, experience, and intellectual capital; the healthier a workplace climate, the more employees are able to tap into and use the skills for which they were hired.  One report in HRPS boldly concluded that it is of “[l]ittle wonder that savvy organizations now recognize good health as a business imperative — one with significant benefits for employee well-being as well as the company bottom line.” (Carver, Davenport, and Nyce, 2015, p. 30). 

A final note: addressing an employee’s workplace well-being translates to their well-being outside of work.  Well-Being at Work is a moderately strong predictor of Well-Being at Home (r=.26) — including feeling satisfied with life, feeling calm, handling daily affairs well, and getting adequate sleep.  


Carver, K., Davenport, T. O.,  & Nyce, S.  (2015). Capturing the Value of Health and Productivity Programs.  People & Strategy, The Professional Journal of HRPS, 38(1).

Colihan, J., & Schulzetenberg, A.  (2018).  Minnesota Workplace Wellness Assessment.  https://www.colihanconsulting.com/.

Global Wellness Institute.  (2018).  Future of Wellness at Work. 

Lencioni, P.  (2012).  The advantage: Why organizational health trumps everything else.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Maestas, N., Mullen, K., Powell, D., von Wachter, T., & Wenger, J.  (2017) Working Conditions in the United States: Results of the 2015 American Working Conditions survey. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Society for Human Resource Management.  (2017).  Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement: The Doors of Opportunity are Open.